Making an impression

Painter Felicity L. Kostakis believes in the power of art – and kindness.

Felicity L. Kostakis had us at “Hello.” Or rather “G’day.” We first met the Australian-born Old Greenwich resident at the Bruce Museum’s 2019 “Art of Design” luncheon, for which she served as co-chairman. She greeted us, as she did other attendees — immediately, warmly.

It’s the way Felicity engages you that sets her apart. She treats you as if you are the only other person in the room — asking questions, listening, reacting to your responses with her expressive face, offering you her own with an unvarnished compassion.

That compassion is focused at the moment on her native land and the koalas that are among the victims of the wildfires there. (See sidebar.)

She is a reminder of what the Dalai Lama once said about religion: “My religion is kindness.” And indeed an extra dollop of kindness is what she tries to instill, she says, into her two teenage sons.

It was an impression that was reinforced by our next meeting, at The Fearless Angel Project’s “Dancing With the Angels” gala, hosted by project founder Izabela O’Brien, whom Felicity much admires for providing scholarships to autistic youngsters in need.

“There are all these intelligent, successful women,” says Felicity, who is all about women helping women. They would prove to be the role models for the second act in her professional life.

A clue to what that act would be came even before we discuss it over lunch at Neiman Marcus Westchester’s Mariposa restaurant. At the “Angels” gala, Felicity noticed something was amiss with our gray wrap as we struggled to compose ourselves for a photograph with the undulating verdure of the Greenwich Country Club in the backdrop. With a graceful gesture, she adjusted the wrap’s bow. That’s when it hit us: The woman has an eye. And, as it turned out, a talent that translates not only into her work with the Bruce but into teaching art to first through fourth graders after school at the Greenwich Academy and painting oils on canvas in her home studio. 

Her landscapes captivate. A footbridge offers an invitation to weeping willows and cherry blossoms in spring. A sailboat streaked with red sets off on a sea of the viewer’s dreams. Waves break on a shore. An equestrian and his charge are poised to take a hurdle. But it’s her soulful portraits of dogs that have proved a hit with the community. At the moment, she says, she’s working on a 4-by-4-foot painting of a Portuguese Water Dog. People want portraits of their pets, rather than their children, to hang over the fireplace, she observes. 

Growing up in Merrickville, a suburb in the Inner West of Sydney, Australia, the daughter of Greek immigrants, Felicity loved art. But that was her older sister’s province, and “and you never want to do what your older sister is doing, especially if she’s great at it.”

Besides, Felicity intuited that it would be hard to make a living as an artist, so she became an investment banker and moved to Dublin to work for the Bank of Ireland. It was the bank that transferred her to Greenwich. Here Denis Curran, then president of its North American operations, was “like a father figure to me. The bank was like a family. They took care of me.” That would prove crucial when she developed an infection and wound up in Stamford Hospital. 

She met future husband Tim Yanoti, who’s in finance, on a blind date. “He’s kind, gracious, thoughtful,” she says. “We hit it off right away.” Needless to say, Felicity never had another blind date.

Once the boys arrived, traveling for the Bank of Ireland nonstop was no longer an option and she turned to painting, studying with the late Enzo Russo, who in turn studied with Giorgio de Chirico and René Magritte, among the Surrealists de Chirico influenced. She also studied with Karen Spring, who urged Felicity to do a self-portrait after she suffered a miscarriage. “Karen said, ‘You have a hole in your heart.’” It’s not that art can make up for the loss of a child or any tragedy. But it can offer a way through, a means to express the pain. The portrait took Felicity two years to complete, she says, her eyes welling.

She finds inspiration in the Impressionists — “so painterly, so expressive, each stroke effortless” — particularly Mary Cassatt, the only American to paint with the French Impressionists — and John Singer Sargent, an American expatriate contemporary of the French Impressionists whose work had much in common with the later, more muscular school of American Impressionism. “He had such bravado,” she says of his landscapes and more famous society portraits, “such deliberate strokes.”

Teaching the next generation of artists and art admirers also excites her. “Children draw what they see, but they paint what they feel,” without the self-critical, self-editing filter of adults, she adds.

It’s not just her students, but those of the Bruce Museum she wants to encourage. The museum’s current renovations call for it to double the number of children it can accommodate in visits and workshops each year, to around 50,000.

“Some of these kids are getting on a bus and coming to the museum for the first time,” she says. “They’re getting to do art and express themselves. That’s wonderful, and I love it.”

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Help for Australia

We interviewed Felicity L. Kostakis at the end of last year, before the devastating wildfires hit her native Australia – and her. But this strong-minded Aussie is fighting back:

“I have been in regular contact with an amazing animal hospital in New South Wales called The Koala Hospital, Port Macquarie. When I last spoke to them, they had more than 50 injured koalas and some are in critical condition. They are expecting more koalas each day due to the bushfires along the south coast of New South Wales and Victoria that are still creating havoc in the area. The scale of these fires is unprecedented.

“Some animals, like koalas and kangaroos, are primarily killed directly by the fires. They are being incinerated in flames or choking on smoke. Nearly a third of all koalas in New South Wales have died and about a third of their habitat has been destroyed. 

“I am actively raising funds for this koala hospital. It is a nonprofit organization and all the funds will go to treat these beloved treasures that have nowhere to run. This animal hospital is also planning to build the very first koala breeding facility to make sure that wild koalas never become extinct. Eventually, these koalas will be released into Australia’s protected forests.

“Here in Connecticut, I am continuing to teach children art but with an ‘Australiana’ theme. The kids are learning about these unique Aussie critters (koalas, wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas and more) as well as the value of giving back while creating their own masterpieces. My hope is that the children will produce art and write a heartfelt message to the incredible veterinarians and selfless volunteers. I will send all the artwork, letters and another check to the koala hospital, showing our appreciation for all their hard work.”

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